I turned 35 a few months ago, and since then the floodgates have opened on one sunny piece of unsolicited advice: "If you're going to have kids, you'd better hurry up," as if I didn't realize I was nearing my best-by date for both motherhood and youth.
You'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard the many hazards of being a 35-plus woman, especially if you're breedingly inclined: starting with increased trouble conceiving, (and if I manage that) of having a baby with Down's, autism, low birth weight and a plethora of other ills. There's also now almost certainty that someone will write the words "elder prima" (elderly mother) on my chart before they put it and me on the shelf.
The common wisdom about the pitfalls of 35-plus motherhood goes against what's happening in the tabloids, of course, unattainability being their bread and butter. Every time you open their URL or pages, another 40-something celeb is pregnant (often with twins) or is adopting a baby. Being an "elder" mother can carry status: not only can it suggest you have money to throw at (expensive) fertility treatments or even surrogacy, but also that you're likely someone who has put career first, another source of kudos in North America (more than, say, being a teen parent).
Crux of a double standard
But it's different for those of us without personal baby entourages in the form of nurses and nannies. And until now, it's been different for men than women. In fact, it's at the crux of the double standard when it comes to sexiness, power and age. The few people who bother to ask how old my partner is (43) tend to wave their hands at the number. "That's young for a guy," most say. It means I'm eight years behind him in my career, if you want to look at it that way, but already older than him biologically. I'm an immature "elder" with more risks.
It's not just that he and his pals are viewed as capable of getting breeding and other jobs done, they're often viewed as downright desirable due to the increased wealth and social status they accumulate as they grey. There are many famous older dads who often get props for still being sexy: David Bowie (at 53), Mick Jagger (at 57), Michael Douglas (at 58), Rod Stewart (at 60), Paul McCartney (at 61), Eric Clapton (at 59), Pierre Trudeau (72), Charlie Chaplin (at 73), Saul Bellow (at 84), Pablo Picasso (at 68), David Letterman (at 56), Larry King (at 65 and 66), Woody Allen (at 51), Warren Beatty (at 62), Dennis Quaid (50) and Jack Nicholson (at 53), to name a mere sample.
There are also famous stories about men who have fathered children into their '80s and '90s, such as Australian mine worker Les Colley, who was 92 years, 10 months when he fathered a son, Oswald, in 1992. "I never thought [my new wife] would get pregnant so easy, but she bloody well did," he told newspapers at the time."
The number of older dads generally is growing: in the U.K., the average age of fathering a child is 32, but figures from the U.K.'s Office for National Statistics show that in 2004 more than 75,000 babies were born to fathers aged 40 and over -- more than one in 10 of all children born. And according to US-based National Center for Health Statistics, in 2004 about 24 in every 1000 men aged 40 to 44 fathered a child. This is up almost 18 per cent from a decade ago.
No 'get out of aging free' card
So I'm heartened that scientists are now terminating at least one unwanted piece of gender nonsense. Until now, there's been extensive research into and coverage of the health problems associated with older motherhood, but scant attention has been paid to any potential difficulties faced by the children of older men. But the increasing drips of research trickling in about the consequences of older sperm all collected in the New York Times mag this weekend. And it's pretty conclusive that aging sperm are no more agile or shiny than saggy eggs. Men and women have a pretty similar biological clock.
Researchers just analyzed tests done on 33,000 American children that showed that the older the man when a child is conceived, the lower a child's score is likely to be on tests of concentration, memory, reasoning and reading skills, at least through age seven. "It adds weight to a new consensus-in-the-making: there is no fountain of youth for sperm, no 'get out of aging free' card," as the NYT story said.
And men don't have to be all that old to be "too old." The article goes on to summarize several past studies. French researchers reported last year that the chance of a couple's conceiving begins to fall when the man is older than 35, and falls sharply if he is older than 40. British and Swedish researchers have calculated that the risk of schizophrenia begins to rise for those whose fathers were over 30 when their babies were born. And another Swedish study has found that the risk of bipolar disorder in children begins to increase when fathers are older than 29, and is highest if they are older than 55. British and American researchers found that babies born to men over the age of 40 have significantly greater risk of autism than do those born to men under 30. (The age of the mother, in most of these studies, showed little or no correlation.)
Social implications of 'washed up sperm'
And the interesting part isn't just what clearing up these misconceptions means scientifically, but what it might mean socially.
Firstly, it’s essentially “why we see women as 'old' and men as 'distinguished'... What if 30-year-old women started looking at 50-year-old men as damaged goods, what with their washed-up sperm, meaning those 50-year-olds might actually have to date (gasp!) women their own age?" writes Lisa Belkin in the NYT.
Secondly, my years as a teacher showed me that there's a well-established tendency to blame the mother for everything from birth defects to missing homework. The new info about dodgy sperm might mean people start to view dads as culpable genetically and therefore parentally.
Finally, women "are the ones who hold the time lines and calendars in our heads, who have to surrender space in our bodies and clear time in our lives," Belkin continues. "Too soon could derail a career. Too late could risk infertility. Becoming a mother means compromising with biology -- 'settling' for a mate or for single-parenthood or for an ill-timed career interruption -- in order to beat that clock."
Some daddy blogs have suggested we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater: that older dads have many advantages including being truly "ready," and also more patient. "Despite my advanced age, my kids are still among the smartest, most beautiful and well-behaved on the planet," blogs Great Dad.
I'm sure they are. The evidence doesn't suggest that every older dad (or mom) has wonky DNA. And sure, older men could still be considered as good mates due to their increased ability to provide for and therefore protect their children.
But the evidence suggests women might get some different consideration now, and actually be about to come a long way, baby.
Related Tyee stories: